Archive for October, 2012

Life Lessons I Learned From Traffic Signs: Part I

October 30, 2012

Lots of people are constantly looking for “signs” in life. They want to know the way, they want to be guided by some divine inspiration, they want the road of life to be smooth. They’re tired of bungling around in their careers, their relationships, and their general place in the cosmos, without a gigantic hand reaching down from the clouds and placing them in the right place and the right time – or even having a decent road map to steer by.

Well, there are signs all over the place. We see hundreds of them on the street and highways every day. The problem is, we generally ignore them.

In the first place, I’m talking about actual traffic signs, not something “inspired” by a god, or even a great philosopher. In the second place, they are short, and so obvious as to be insignificant. Or are they? A great haiku can be fraught with meaning.

Therefore, perhaps it’s only the interpretation that’s missing. After all, traffic signs are definitely symbols, and symbology can be extremely difficult to understand even if you’re Carl Sagen. So, not having Carl around to interpret things for us, I thought I would pass on a few of the simplistic lessons I gained, after many long minutes of contemplation, from studying a few of our most interesting traffic signs.

For today, only a few of the most common signs. More to come!


After you stop at this sign, what next? You look both ways, both for other traffic and people crossing the street. You decide when it’s safe to proceed.

This is something we often fail to do in life. We move ahead like we’re wearing blinders, charging toward a goal that may or not be where we really want to end up. We don’t look for dangers.

Sometimes, we need to come to a complete halt in our life, look around, count to three thousand, and reassess the situation. Maybe we’re going in the wrong direction but did not realize it. Maybe there’s another vehicle headed straight for us, and we would not have seen it if we had not been forced to pause for just a moment. Perhaps there’s a child rolling a ball right in our way, but we didn’t notice, and that child might have been badly hurt because we were ignoring him or her.

Sometimes we hear very distinctly someone tell us to stop. Our spouse, a teacher, a boss or colleague, a good friend. Maybe it’s because we’re having an argument and they want a timeout. Maybe they see us going (in their opinion) in the wrong direction, and think we should pause, look around, and evaluate before moving again. Maybe even it’s our child just wanting some attention. Did we pay attention to the warning?

Sometimes there’s a physical stop sign. We have a heart attack. We’ve been drinking and driving and we swerve off the road. We have several relationships end quickly, or we get fired from work. Do we just keep charging ahead blindly, doing the same things that prompted the stop sign?

On rare occasions, while we are driving we will be so oblivious as to miss seeing the stop sign. In life, we miss them quite often, either because we were oblivious or because we just decided to ignore them. As with being on the road, driving through a stop sign can get us seriously injured or even killed.

When things go wrong repeatedly in the same essential situation, there’s a stop sign in front of you, possibly even a red light. It can be hazardous to your health—physically and emotionally—to ignore it. Learn to recognize the stop signs, and act as if you were at a red light, patiently waiting for it to turn green.


You don’t have to stop, but you must slow down and consider the situation. Remember, a car moving in the through lane has right-of-way, so you don’t want to be the cause of an accident. When it’s safe, we can keep moving, but how long did we think about the situation to have really evaluated that it’s safe?

We come to many yield signs in our life. They may involve our spouse, some other family member, a friend, a colleague or our boss. Is someone else in the right? If so, did we fail to yield, and thereby cause a terrible collision, one that was totally avoidable?

Sometimes, we see the yield sign, and it applies to cars coming in from the side. But maybe that car has not seen the yield sign and plows right on through. Even though we are in the right, is it worth it to be “dead right” just to insist on having your way?

In a car, it can be very irritating when someone violates your right-of-way. But, in life, it can actually be quite satisfying to yield, to let the other person have their way when the consequences do not involve life or death, especially if that other person is a loved one. In the case of a boss, it can be politically expedient!

Whether you know you are in the wrong or believe you are in the right, when you see a yield sign, be prepared to give way. Sometimes, it can make you much happier in the long run. Sometimes, it can save your life.

Slower Traffic Keep Right

This is one I often see disobeyed, on the road and in life. On the road, there are two reasons I ascribe to this, based on observed behavior. First, the driver looks straight ahead, never to the right or left or even in their rearview mirror. They are totally oblivious to traffic around or behind them. Second, the driver looks at the cars behind, or as they pass to the right, and gives a smug smile. This indicates they feel they are doing the “safe or legal speed”, and believe themselves to be a regulator of proper traffic condition.

In life, this is generally the case with the old getting in the way of the young. Quite often, we are just too absorbed in our own direction, and unwilling to bother to look around to see if we are impeding somebody else’s progress. We might think of this as just minding our own business, while those around us would consider it selfish. Frankly, life moves on. The pace of life has increased; the amount of knowledge young people have these days is amazing because of the information influx in the media and especially the Internet, and other technologies move virtually every aspect of daily life along just a tiny bit faster every generation. Are you one of the old folks who are resentful that you can’t keep up anymore? You don’t have to. Just move over to the slower lanes and let them whiz by.

Or are you a self-satisfied traffic regulator? Some older folks like to drive at exactly the speed limit or below on the motorway and never obey the signs that tell them to move to the right, and are deliberately trying to slow down everyone else around them. They feel they are morally superior to everyone else. Kids are in too much of a hurry these days, they have no respect for the older generation and society’s conventions, and they are very rude about wanting to pass you by. Why can’t things be like in “the old days”?

I’ve got news for them: things were exactly like that in their generation. Their parents complained about the same things. I know that, when I was a young man, I was very impatient with adults who “just wanted to get in my way” and not let me go at the speed I wanted. After all, if I ran into problems, that was my concern, wasn’t it? As long as the hot-rodders don’t cause an accident on the road that involves you, it’s sort of the same deal.

Whether we like it or not, music gets louder and less coherent, art gets wilder, literature gets lighter and faster paced, and car engines become more powerful. One man’s passion is the next generation’s poison, and all that jazz – or rock, or heavy metal, or hip hop. It’s the job of the police to regulate traffic, not yours. Do what you’re supposed to do: Move over to the right if you don’t want to keep up with the pace.